“Bilbo used often to say that there was only one road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous thing, Frodo, going out of your door’, he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’”.
So says Frodo Baggins as he and Sam begin their adventure in Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring and, whether you have realised it yet or not, we have all just embarked upon a new exciting adventure. Some of you may even be wondering where you have been swept off to. For, at the end of Freshers’ week, this Evensong marks a time of new beginnings: for those joining the college for the first time, for those returning as students, staff or fellows, and for choristers and parents entering upon another year with the choir and school. Indeed, it is a time of fresh horizons for me too as I begin the role as Chaplain with you. It is the beginning of a journey that we will take together, and we do not know exactly what is going to happen to us or precisely how we will be effected by our experiences along the way. We hope to grow, to learn and to gain, as the Proverbs writer advises, wisdom, a quality more precious than jewels.
But our gathering here today also signifies that we are not on this journey alone for, although we may have left family behind to be here, to be part of the Worcester College community, is to be part of a family – a network of friendship, fellowship, guidance and support, to which, I hope, you will always feel connected, wherever your path may take you in years to come.
Last Saturday, at the Gaudy meal for old members, I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the oldest living members of that family. Colonel Edward Lewis came up to Worcester in 1933, exactly seventy-five years ago. The story of his adventurous life in the army took him to 14 different countries and 36 different homes, and to listen to him was as gripping as reading a John Buchan novel. What struck me most about his conversation was how very grateful he was for is life and everything that had happened in it. Several times he said. “I’ve been so lucky, you see.” Well, whether you make your own luck or not, if Solomon was right in connecting wisdom with longevity, then I surmised that Col. Lewis must have some wisdom to impart after all these years, and he did not disappoint me.
“If he could preach one sermon”, he said, “it would be this: Abolish Human Rights”. “How dramatic”, I exclaimed. “Why?” Because, Col. Lewis explained, the world has become obsessed with individuals and their own rights at the expense of their responsibilities. Responsibility involves changing the focus from one’s own needs to those of others, being grateful for what one has and mindful of those who are less fortunate. Well, I promised colonel Lewis that I would probably use his idea, and so I have.
In fact, the more I have reflected upon the notion of responsibility this week, the more it seems essential to a healthy community. In this place, people are responsible for each other, I have responsibilities towards you, you have responsibilities towards each other and we all have responsibilities towards the wider society. Responsibility encompasses a number of virtues: humility, generosity, diligence, thankfulness and patience amongst others. These are all virtues that require certain amounts of self-sacrifice and discipline. The advice of Proverbs touches upon other qualities that will assist in the active mindfulness of others: remember God’s commands, be loyal and faithful, trust in the Lord, do not be wise in your own eyes, seek wisdom.
Responsibility and family, or community, life go hand in hand. For if we were to be left to our own devices as individuals unaided and uncared for, and not helping others, on our great adventure we could only fail. However, transcending all our actions is the gospel of Christ as we have heard read in St. John’s first epistle, which tells us that we are members of God’s family. “See what the love of the Father has given us that we should be called children of God: and that is what we are.” The fact is, that we have no right to be the children of God – it is not one of our human rights – it is a free and unconditional gift that allows the love and grace of God to work in our imperfect lives. As one of the desert fathers, John Climacus, put it:
“God is the life of all beings. He is the salvation of all: of the pious or the impious; of those freed from the passions or those caught in them; of monks or those living in the world; of the educated or the illiterate; of the healthy or the sick; of the young or the very old. He is like the outpouring of the light, the glimpse of the sun or the changes in the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception.”
Implicit in this family membership is a future of hope for “we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.” To be like Christ is to live in love. That is the kind of love, self-sacrificial and life-giving, that we can only know because he first loved us.
Responsibility, virtue, wisdom and long life have no worth at all unless there is love. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,” St. John Says “that we should love one another.” Indeed, love is the mark of life in all its fullness. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”
This Michaelmas term, let us chiefly remember this: we do not have to strive to be children of God, we just are. There is no entrance exam and no condition. We can love each other because he first loved us. With a light heart, therefore, let us respond to each other, and those outside these college walls, with the responsibility of love, and may God’s freewill offering of grace be with us as we journey on together.
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain
12th October 2008